I love the sub-title of Deborah MacNamara’s new book: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One). When I read this title, immediately some youths and adults come to my mind, to whom I would like to say: “Don’t behave like a preschooler!” Or, “Don’t be so childish!”
I would love to say this to them, perhaps with a raised voice, perhaps even add a little shaking to it … tempting fantasies. But fantasies only, because I know it would be of no use whatsoever to do this. As the word child-ish says: For young children it is normal to behave “childish.” For older children or adults it is not normal to act childish, they are supposed to behave adult-ish. But no one chooses to act childish. It is not the decision of our free will to be or not to be mature and adult.
This is a central conclusion of everything developmental science can teach us: Children are not born “adult-ish.” They cannot learn adultish-ness. Mature experience and acting cannot be enforced.
Narrow act-as-if-mature behaviour traits can be trained (e.g. “Say, ‘thank you.’”), so children obey a concrete prescription. But this is not at all the same as true maturity, and rather unreliable. Loss of self-control is an essential part of childish-ness – and someone who has lost control is not a good subject for directing interventions.
So what’s the matter with youths or adults who don’t behave adult-ish?
They are “stuck.”
I always imagine snails in their shells. Snails need developmentally friendly conditions to come out of their shells. They can survive dangerous and hostile conditions inside their protecting and defending shells, but they cannot grow while they are stuck in their shells.
When older kids and adults get stuck in their childish-ness, it is because the conditions of their life do not allow them to leave their defending shells often and long enough to become adult.
This would mean it is of eminent importance for us to know which conditions children need to be able to leave their shells and grow out of childish-ness. It would mean everyone responsible for a child should know how to avoid a child getting stuck in his or her defensive shell. It would mean that it is of extreme importance to know how we can lure stuck children into leaving their shells again to be able to continue growing and come to maturity.
For the first time in history, we are not confined to tradition or our instincts and intuition alone to do this. Thanks to developmental science and attachment research, today we can understand the dynamics moving a child to hide in their shell or to move forward into maturation. We can understand what the child needs most as favourable conditions for maturation. We can understand the difference between behaviour and development and our need to sometimes bridge stuckness (and bad behaviour resulting from it) to reach vital developmental goals.
Since we want our children not only to behave as-if-mature, but to truly become mature, our insight helps us to set our priorities right. And our insight helps us to understand our child from inside out, to not take their stuckness and resulting behaviour personally, to not let anything divide us.
This is what I love most in the Neufeld attachment-based developmental approach. Finally, my intuitive feelings are in harmony with my mental knowledge and concluding convictions. Recognizing the needs of a stuck child enables me to maintain my warm invitation for this child, despite alienating behaviour resulting from stuckness. This makes it much easier to stay calm – my emotions don’t get triggered by childish behaviour as before.
As Neufeld Institute director for the German language, I get a lot of feedback: how precious this conscious awareness is in relationships to our spouses, to grandmothers and grandmothers-in-law, educators, doctors, teachers, trainers of our children. By my conscious knowledge I can explain to others, much clearer than before, what I feel about a child’s needs, because my intuition is supported by mental knowledge that does not need any special worldview to accept.
I finally do have words to talk about my child’s developmental needs. The words are simple, the approach is simple – though that does not necessarily mean it is always easy to follow its conclusions. I have to walk the maze in every given moment. This means I have to be alive, sensitive, conscious – no routine, no solid certainty if something will work, always trying, exploring, experiencing. I do not have to believe blindly, I can test every statement regarding to my child. To watch the children in my care maturing – and myself, too – is the most wonderful reward I could imagine.
To learn more about stuckness, enroll in the Neufeld Intensive I: Making Sense of Kids, where participants learn to recognize the signs of stuckness, determine the causes of this condition, and get children unstuck. Our next course meets online on Thursdays from 10-11 am PDT, starting October 6, 2016 and running for 22 weeks.